What are the lessons from the pandemic?

Remote work has been studied for decades and offered as a partial solution to congestion. COVID-19, however, has given us a chance to actually learn about working from home.

A WOMAN works at home in Sassenheim, Netherlands, on October 2.  (photo credit: EVA PLEVIER/REUTERS)
A WOMAN works at home in Sassenheim, Netherlands, on October 2.
(photo credit: EVA PLEVIER/REUTERS)
Even under the most optimistic scenarios, the considerable investments being made in fast, reliable public transportation will at best only moderately alleviate congestion in Israel, and not for another 10, 15, or even 20 years. In the meantime, there will continue to be enormous waste in human productivity, increasing air and noise pollution, and unmeasurable stress on drivers forced to endure ever longer commutes.
Remote work has been studied for decades and offered as a partial solution to congestion. COVID-19, however, has given us a chance to actually learn about both the potential impact as well as the limitations of working from home, and some conclusions are already being drawn.
Anyone who drives regularly at rush hour has experienced the immediate and dramatic effect of even a modest reduction in the number of drivers that occurs every year when the school year ends. In recent months, we have all experienced how even a partial lockdown has made a great impact. We have also come to realize that remote work – at least when implemented as broadly as the virus has often required – has its drawbacks and can only partially replace work on site.
What exactly have we learned?
We have learned that not everyone is able to work productively at home, and that not all managers are capable of managing remotely.
Some work tasks are easily performed remotely and many others, such as manufacturing, are obviously not. We have also learned that there are living situations that are conducive to remote work and others in which working from home is all but impossible.
Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that there are many positive aspects to working in an office that can’t be easily replicated by even the best online solutions, and that for most people, work is more than the sum its tasks, and more than a workstation with good connectivity.
Even if everyone could work as productively at home as at the office, something will be lost for most people if the workplace is no longer a part of their lives. Aside from the utilitarian notion that social interaction at work,contributes to team-building and creativity, it contributes to a sense\ of place and a sense of community, and to the formation of lifelong friendships formed at the coffee machine or with the lunchroom gang.
IMAGINE RELOCATING to a new city and your first day of work is getting your password and logging on instead of getting to know the people you will be working with. Even before the pandemic, observers were pointing out the downside of a world in which so many everyday activities were taking place virtually instead of in the actual world in which there are actual people.
Picking up a coffee at a café on the way to work, browsing in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, dining in a restaurant, shopping downtown or at the mall were once social activities, places of both planned and chance social interactions and not just places to get something done.
Of course, it is easier to shop and order online, to reserve a library book or perform countless other tasks, but for many of these activities something is lost. That something is people, the excitement of downtown, the fun of browsing through real books, or seeing an old friend at the mall. The same may be even truer of the social milieu of the work place.
As to easing congestion, most though not all places of employment should be able to create a hybrid situation in which employees work two days a week at home, some perhaps more, and others rarely if at all. Clearly this would have to be managed so that different employees took off different days, and managers would have to learn how to manage remotely.
There are already studies around the world, however, that show that in many professions productivity and output has actually increased during the pandemic. The hours lost in commuting are invested instead in breakfast with one’s spouse, and more time working. Some companies are actually concerned that people are working too many hours, and that the loss of boundaries means that people are working at all hours of the day.
There are decades of research and literature about remote work, but never before has there been a nationwide, even worldwide experiment on such a broad basis. The Western world has become one big beta site. Now it’s time to “go live.”

The writer is head of planning at the Mandel Foundation-Israel, and vice president of Atid EDI. He has an MA in urban planning.